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Pastor and His Small D.C. Church Offer Gay African Americans a Sanctuary From Hate

Washington was once a mecca of culture and community for gay blacks, but AIDS in the 1980s devastated their ranks, leaving them with few leaders. Youths in community today are scared of the disease, and many lack family support.

Then, to his surprise, about a dozen HIV-positive men and women answered Cheeks's call. Finally, Walker stood, too.

"I felt like I was in heaven," said Walker, who always heard homosexuality condemned from the pulpit of other churches he had attended. "The only place I feel safe is in my church."

He credits Cheeks with changing his life. The bishop told him to let God in and stop living in the shadows.

Walker was able to confess a deep secret for which he had long sought forgiveness. On the night of his honeymoon in 1973, he had slipped away from his wife to have sex with his best man. During his seven years of marriage, he betrayed her again and again.

The acceptance Walker found at Inner Light gave him the strength to stop abusing drugs and alcohol, he said. But it hasn't entirely erased the stigma of having HIV. Every morning, Walker opens a chest drawer filled with about 20 brown and white bottles of medicine for HIV, staph infection and failing kidneys. He doesn't keep the pills in the medicine cabinet of his Northwest Washington apartment for a reason, said his partner, Keith Short, who is also HIV-positive.

"You don't want visitors to come into the bathroom and say, 'Oh my God,' " Short said.

The desire to hide being HIV-positive -- not just from visitors but from prospective sexual partners -- is powerful and difficult to change. Some men are reluctant to reveal their health status to possible partners for fear of being rejected. Short said he might avoid the subject if he and Walker broke up and he were dating again.

"It would depend on how I feel," Short said, adding that he would probably use a condom but that in the heat of the moment, he couldn't guarantee it. "Sex is a very powerful thing."

That attitude, Cheeks said, is part of why gay black men in the District are disproportionately affected by HIV and AIDS. And why he has to keep preaching the message of safe sex.

Fighting Complacency

A light rain drummed on Cheeks's umbrella as he walked to the downtown offices of the Washington Blade several weeks ago. He had been invited there by the newspaper's editors for a roundtable discussion about gay life in the District to mark the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots -- the clashes between police and homosexuals in New York that sparked the modern gay rights movement.

The discussion among older gay activists and younger participants was congenial until the conversation turned to HIV and AIDS. Cheeks listened as 22-year-old Antoine Smith, a former Bojangles' shift manager who lives in Prince George's County, matter-of-factly described the disease as "manageable. It's not the death sentence it used to be."

"I dated someone with it," Smith said, "but I'm still free of it." Although he said he is tested every three months, he said he hadn't always protected himself from HIV. Then a friend who had AIDS died two years ago.

"That's what gave me my fright to stop doing what I was doing," he said. "I was the one being carefree, knowing that this was out there, but at the same time thinking I couldn't be touched."

To Cheeks, Smith sounded too cavalier about AIDS. The bishop lurched back in his chair when Smith described it as "an everyday disease." Even today, Cheeks said, distraught gay black men frequently call his cellphone, asking him to help them cope with their new HIV infections.

Although powerful antiviral drugs keep many people with HIV from developing AIDS, "there's no guarantee that your body will react well to the medicine," Cheeks said. The medical advances have made too many people complacent about HIV, especially young men such as Smith who don't fully grasp its threat.

Twenty-two percent of men in Washington who contracted HIV through sex with men are between the ages of 20 and 29, the District government reported in March. And 40 percent are between 30 and 39.

As he left the Blade's offices, Cheeks said the discussion had driven home the need to start a youth mentoring program at Inner Light. "Most messages . . . to young folk is if you're gay or lesbian, you're going to hell," he said. "So why take responsibility if you're already condemned?

"They need to understand God loves them. But they also need to be accountable for their sexual behavior. Not everything goes."

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